Getting the Dirt on The Public Intellectual: A response to Michael Bérubé

Getting the Dirt on The Public Intellectual: A response to Michael Bérubé

Cary Wolfe

Cary Wolfe lays bare the assumptions that define Bérubé’s

Before I get going, let me say I’m glad people like Michael Bérubé are out there doing what they do. Those of us on the left who aren’t out front doing the dirty work in the so-called public sphere should think twice and probably thrice before we go chastising those who, like Bérubé, spend much time and energy patiently responding (in Bérubé’s case with great good humor) to the Lynn Cheyneys of the world. So I want my comments here to be taken in a spirit of solidarity with Bérubé’s efforts and even, in some cases, with his specific reservations and suggestions. Foremost among my points of agreement is Bérubé’s rejection, on the one hand, of “the new discourse of the so-called ‘public intellectual’ ” as deployed by Russell Jacoby and others, and, on the other hand, of the position held by Mas’ud Zavarzadeh and others that the intellectual who attempts to engage the dominant rhetoric of the social and cultural moment and play “inside the system according to the rules of reform” is automatically a stooge for the powers that be.

Both of these extremes, it seems to me, have long since been shown wanting by critiques such as Frank Lentricchia’s under-read Criticism and Social Change (U of Chicago P, 1988), which shows how Kenneth Burke’s career makes a mockery of both extremes, and in so doing provides a model for what I think Bérubé has in mind when he uses the term “public intellectual.” The example of Burke as read by Lentricchia confirms Bérubé’s suspicion that when Jacoby and others attack the “narrowness” and “careerism” of other intellectuals, what they are really attacking (under the cover of arguing that specialization undermines public duty) is what is usually called “theory.” The example of Burke shows how the view of a zero-sum game between “theory” and public intellectual “practice” perpetuated by the discourse of the “public intellectual” is wrongheaded. Burke, after all, was doing grand theory long before it had a name - and not just in the well-known pair of books on motives, but way back in the thirties, in difficult and ambitious books like Attitudes Toward History and Permanence and Change. And he was a “generalist” who wrote for “nonspecialist journals” (and penned a few literary texts of his own as well). What the example of Burke tells us is not, as Jacoby et al. would have it, that one pursuit is better than another; what it tells us is that each needs the other to keep it honest.

I think this is something close to Bérubé’s bottom line, and it is a bottom line I heartily endorse. But I also think that Bérubé needs to be reminded (as I intend to remind him here) that the theory side, the “intellectual” side, of this productive mutual antagonism tends to receive short shrift in his emphasis on the intellectual’s need to address public policy. It has always been difficult to wear both hats, and almost nobody these days can wear both supremely well, in part because of the “functional differentiation” of modern society (to use Niklas Luhmann’s term) which calls into question the very idea of the “public intellectual” - a point I will return to in some detail below. On the left, Edward Said and maybe a few others come to mind as exceptions, people who get a hearing in the major media and are taken as serious, cutting edge forces by those with academic expertise. This doesn’t prove either side right, as Jacoby et al. think. What it means is that the public intellectual wannabes need to listen when the theory aficionados tell them they’re trafficking in unexamined or discredited assumptions and posting specious arguments; and the theory-hounds need to listen when the public intellectuals tell them that it would be nice if they could make themselves as understandable as possible to as many readers as possible, even at the expense of sometimes rounding off a few corners, lest they be condemned to preaching to a very small choir.

So much for the first position rejected by Bérubé. As for the second, I must confess that I haven’t read the essay by Zavarzadeh he cites, so I’ll just have to assume that Bérubé’s recounting is reasonably accurate. If it is, Zavarzadeh’s contention strikes me as an all-too-familiar sort of critical dogma which is politically idealistic and intellectually simplistic in the stark Manichaean contrast it paints between the purity of the revolutionary intellectual, who alone understands and represents the true interests of “the people,” and the ideologically contaminated “public intellectual” who thinks that gains may be made by seizing what Burke calls the “ruling symbols” and putting them to progressive political work. It is not so easy - it has never been so easy - to draw the sorts of rigid lines that Zavarzadeh wants to draw between the “revolutionary” and the “reformist,” the “local” and the “global,” being “inside” the “system” and being “outside” of it, and so on. How does this sort of framework help us make sense of, say, Louis Farrakan? Dave Foreman? Pat Buchanan? The Simpson trial? Madonna? It might seem tempting to excuse this sort of procrusteanism on the grounds of political commitment. But this, I think, would be overly-generous, for as Lentricchia writes of the lesson we can draw from Burke for the would-be politically-engaged intellectual,

To attempt to proceed in purity - to reject the rhetorical strategies of capitalism and Christianity, as if such strategies were in themselves responsible for human oppression - to proceed with the illusion of purity is to situate oneself on the margin of history… It is to exclude oneself from having any chance of making a difference for better or worse (36).

My skepticism toward Zavarzadeh’s position should not be taken, however, as indicating any reduced emphasis on the issues of class, capital, and commodification hovering around the edges of the passage quoted by Bérubé. In fact, I will eventually want to suggest that this is precisely one of the registers in which Bérubé himself might want to think in more detail about the politics of “selling out,” the role - perhaps I should say the possibility - of the public intellectual, and, especially, the trade-offs involved in endorsing a certain brand of nationalism. The extent to which such a commitment might be compatible with the fundamentally liberal humanist framework (left liberal humanist, to be sure) within which Bérubé seems currently to be operating is, I think, one of the most pressing questions of all for Bérubé’s project, at least in the long run.

At the core of Bérubé’s argument is his contention that “cultural studies, if it is going to be anything more than just…another option in the salad bar at the theory-school cafeteria, must direct its attention to the local and national machinery of public policy. I want to argue,” he continues,

that Henry Giroux is right to claim, in his most recent essays, that cultural studies intellectuals aspire to the status of public intellectuals precisely because they conceive of the university as “a major public sphere that influences large numbers of people.” “Teaching and writing,” Bérubé concludes, “are two important ways of being public; but what I want to call for is a practice of cultural studies that articulates the theoretical and critical work of the so-called public intellectual to the movements of public policy.”

Aside from pointing out that Bérubé’s dismissive comment about the “theory school salad bar” makes him sound a lot more like the Jacoby/Dickstein line than he ought to be comfortable with, I can best state my differences with his view of the situation by citing a simple facts: most of the philosophical underpinnings needed to rhetorically mobilize a constituency in the public sphere toward progressive policy initiatives have been subjected to disabling critique in the theoretical work of many of those who would frame such a rhetoric. As Bill Rasch and I have argued elsewhere, maybe the fundamental problem for the politically attuned left intellectual right now is that the past 20 years have witnessed a powerful theoretical critique of representationalism in its various forms - that is, of the idea that some statements and interpretations are to be judged better than others because they more accurately and transparently reflect the true nature of a pre-given reality “as it is” before the interpreter and her discourse arrives on the scene (and the optical metaphor here is very much to the point, as Richard Rorty pointed out some time ago in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature). For idealists, that pre-given reality is in the structure of the mind or, in a certain variation, in the structure of language or discourse itself; for realists, it is in the “objective” structure of the world. But the past few decades have seen, in almost every area of the human sciences, the building of a very persuasive case indeed for the contingency and socially-constructed nature of all knowledge - a case, that is, against representationalism in all its forms. At first, the critique of representationalism seemed liberating for the left intellectual, for if it could be shown that any hegemonic discourse was contingent and not “grounded” in the usual sense, then it was easy to imagine that a different (i.e. more just) hegemony might be established. The problem, of course, is that once you have appealed to a social constructionist argument, and thereby kicked the theoretical foundations out from under those who pretend their power is grounded in the very order of things, you have also put your own (putatively more progressive) claims in jeopardy as well, insofar as those claims need a foundationalist philosophical ground to be effective.

Think, for example, of how powerful the Enlightenment rhetoric of universal human rights is in various debates within the public sphere. And then remind yourself how each of these three terms - “universal,” “human,” and “rights” - has been carefully and systematically subjected to radical critique by many of the major intellectual developments in the human sciences of the past 30 years. Almost all progressive movements (and some not so progressive ones) find it effective to trade upon the rhetoric of “rights.” But in what sort of position does the left intellectual find herself when she remembers that the notion of “rights” has a quite historically, philosophically, and politically specific (i.e. liberal) lineage, that there is nothing natural about it, and that to appeal to equal rights under the law as a progressive social strategy is (as our Marxist friends remind us) to perpetuate the illusion that equality in the legal sphere solves rather than masks the problem of inequality in the economic sphere - all of which was powerfully played out alongside the dramas of gender and race in the Simpson trial?

And imagine now that how the left intellectual negotiates this problem - the discrepancy between what she knows is rhetorically effective in the public sphere and what she knows, philosophically and theoretically, about that rhetoric - is different in each of the instances invoked above by Bérubé and Giroux: writing an article (Harper’s or boundary 2?), teaching (graduate or undergraduate?), addressing one’s professional peers (field conference or AAUP meeting?), and so on. The problem is this: even if we agree with Bérubé, as I do, that cultural studies intellectuals ought to address public policy more than they do, it remains the case that different audiences, to be moved or persuaded, require different and even incompatible rhetorical strategies, and those multiple forms of address must still be reconciled with what the intellectual knows - as an intellectual, theorist, and critic - about those rhetorical terms.

I hasten to add that this is not simply a matter of intellectual fashion, as the Jonathan Yardleys of the world like to say, nor is it a matter of simply having been at the “theory school salad bar” so long that one experiences permanently paralyzing existential aporia over the cole slaw (creamy or chopped?). The problem is that the left public intellectual finds herself in a schizophrenic situation. But it is a schizophrenic situation, as so many influential theorists of “the postmodern condition” have suggested, that the rest of society shares - and shares structurally, not simply because of a bad attitude. It is possible to imagine, I suppose (as Jurgen Habermas does), that all of these different discourses and sites add up to and are rationally reconciled in something called a “public sphere,” but looking around me I see no reason, other than sheer utopian longing, to think that it is so.

A more persuasive account of our current situation is offered, I think, by Niklas Luhmann’s theory of “functional differentiation,” which argues that modern and postmodern societies (the distinction is of little moment for him) are made up of discrete and self-referential but nevertheless interlinked systems - legal, educational, economic, political, and so on - none of which (including that in which the intellectual operates) may provide a privileged perspective on society as a whole. Social systems, as a condition of their self-reproduction (or “autopoiesis”), must respond selectively and reductively (in terms of their own operational codes) to an environment that is always already more complex than any single system - which is why, for example, animal rights organizations who want companies to stop testing cosmetics on animals realize that all the moral appeals in the world will not be as effective as organizing product boycotts (corporations are by definition in business to make money, and the moral code is strictly speaking beside the operational point). As Dietrich Schwanitz explains, the Luhmannian account of functional differentiation means that

society is no longer regarded as the sum of its parts, but as a combination of system-environment differentiations… The individual human being belongs to each of these functionally differentiated subsystems for only short periods of time with only limited aspects of his person depending on his respective role as a voter, pupil, reader, patient, or litigant. It is his fundamental exclusion from society that allows the occasional re-entry of the individual under particular circumstances.

Several important points would seem to follow from this view, most of which complicate considerably the role and even possibility of Bérubé’s public intellectual. The first and most obvious is a radical questioning of the very idea of the “public sphere” itself. As Eva Knodt points out, while Habermas - and, one would have to think, Bérubé - “insists on grounding modern society in the archimedian point of a rationally motivated consensus, the principle of functional differentiation entails the absence of such a center and, by implication, the impossibility of a totalizing consciousness or collective identity on the model of a transcendental subject or of a linguistically grounded intersubjectivity.” This is so, Luhmann argues, because one cannot “reestablish the totality of the system within the system. The whole cannot be a part of the whole at the same time. Any attempt of this kind would merely create a difference in the system: the difference of that part which represents the totality of the system within the system vis-a-vis all the other parts.”

What this means, then, is that in functionally differentiated society there is no public sphere because there is no public, no space within which society is the “sum of its parts,” no archimedian vantage from which the differences between different function systems, codes, discourses, and language games can be adjudicated. (There is, to be sure, that mass media concoction and addressee called “the public,” but that, as Baudrillard and others have reminded us, is a very different matter indeed from Bérubé’s “public.”) So even if it is true, as Bérubé argues, that “conservative public intellectuals see it as integral to their enterprise to undermine the idea of the public in the realm of public policy,” doing away with the idea of “the public” is not necessarily conservative. Indeed, it could be argued that it is crucial to leftist political strategy to understand above all, as the Right apparently does more effectively, the passing of the public sphere and the specific demands of the different function systems and their codes that those who would intervene must engage. This is all the more true in light of the fact, as Harro Müller reminds us, that “the participants in each respective system tend to overestimate their own possibilities and project them in inadmissible ways. Representatives of the political system always tie the power code to the moral code and stylize themselves as representatives of the common interest. In aesthetic discourse, it is a favorite rhetorical strategy to promote oneself as the mouthpiece of authentic experiences which are then generalized across systems.” Indeed, Bérubé would seem to admit as much - and thereby recognize the fact of functional differentiation - when he quite rightly observes that “The 104th Congress is going about the business of dismantling social programs despite the fact that one radical conservative claims natural, biological sanction for doing so, and another radical conservative explicitly rejects that reasoning yet comes to the same conclusion.”

It probably goes without saying that the view I’ve been outlining makes it difficult if not impossible to talk about the representative intellectual - the “public intellectual” - in the way that Bérubé imagines. But I’ll say it anyway, because for Bérubé to ground the efficacy of the work of the intellectual in the extent to which it purportedly represents the “true” interests of the public brings him closer to the positions of both Jacoby and Zavarzadeh than he wants to be: to Jacoby because it forces Bérubé to say that his contention that the most important intellectuals are “people like him” is not just a pragmatic or rhetorical one (which in my view is acceptable and indeed unavoidable), but is grounded (and here he falls in with Zavarzadeh) in what is finally an organic link to the true interests of the public, the people, the workers, or whatever.

What I’ve just said amounts to rejecting the line that runs from Habermas through folks like Nancy Fraser and other good leftists which says that only if you have a normative account can you complain about anything or offer more progressive social solutions. You don’t need to believe or feel compelled to prove that you are representing the “true” interests of the people or the public sphere to argue, in a variety of contexts, that homelessness is a bad thing, that universal single payer health coverage is a good idea, or that the redistribution of wealth in the US ever more upward is socially disastrous and makes a mockery of the values even conservatives say they hold dear. All you can do - all anybody can do - is offer the most persuasive and compelling arguments you can for the views you support. Appealing to a “ground” for those beliefs may be good rhetorical practice in certain situations, but such appeals should, I think, be lightly held and sparingly mobilized.

The problem with this view, as you will have already guessed, is that the terrain negotiated by the public intellectual makes it fairly impossible to do just that. It is hard if not impossible to square off with a William Bennett or a Lynn Cheyney and not make such foundationalist appeals. I agree with Bérubé that this does not mean that left intellectuals should therefore avoid that terrain. But I disagree with him that what this indicates is that we need to be better, more public, “intellectuals.” In my view, it is futile for the intellectual to attempt to “reconcile” the differences systemically required in writing for Harper’s - or even, to put a finer point on it, doing a panel on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer - with writing for boundary 2. If it is true in a sense that to be a public intellectual is to sell out, it is not (as Zavarzadeh thinks) because it is a political sellout, but rather because it is usually (and, in some public forums - Capital Gang and the like - always) an intellectual sellout. In this light it is thus not primarily, as Bérubé thinks, the failure of left intellectuals to address public policy that separates the wheat from the chaff; it is not as if right wing intellectuals, in addressing public policy, have a more accurate read on the relationship of the “intellectual” and the “public.” What they do have is a more accurate - or rather more effective - read on how to use the mass media and adapt to its systemic requirements. Right wing intellectuals know how to get into what Washington media insiders call “the golden Rolodex” and stay there.

What this means, then, is not that we need to be more public- or policy-minded intellectuals, but that we need to be more savvy media manipulators, sound-bite rhetoricians, and, sometimes, snake oil salesmen and demagogues for causes we deem worthy - and this includes mobilizing incoherent or historically obsolete terms like “the public sphere.” The problem, of course, is that most intellectuals went into their line of work in the first place because of a deep distaste for and distrust of this sort of thing. Hence, it’s no surprise that public intellectuals aren’t exactly falling off of trees.

The account I’ve just given, framed by the idea of “functionally differentiated” society, thus gives me a way to agree and disagree with Bérubé all at once. I agree with him that many of us should address public policy more than we do; but I disagree with him that the problem with left intellectuals is what amounts to a failure of will or a seduction by an “avant-garde tradition.” Being cognizant of functional differentiation allows me to be skeptical “that intellectual work in cultural studies should seek to have an impact on the mundane and quotidian world of public policy” (emph. mine), while at the same time agreeing with Bérubé that it is idealistic in the extreme and politically a dead-end to hold that negotiating “with mainstream print media in civil society” is “a form of capitulation to capitalism.” For these reasons, Bérubé’s call for “a practice of cultural studies that articulates the theoretical and critical work of the so-called public intellectual to the movements of public policy” is and will forever remain strategically vague, because in functionally differentiated society theory cannot ground practice in this way. All theory and practice can do is beat each other up and keep each other honest. To use Luhmannian language, theory and practice can only serve as the more complex environment to the other’s always already reductive and selective system, perturbing it, forcing it to adapt, to deal. The “public intellectual” who goes “public” on The News Hour with Jim Lehrer and ceases to be “intellectual” needs people like me to beat him over the head with theory to make him examine more closely the implications of the dire rhetorical moves he is surely going to have to make to get any political work done; and he is going to have to beat me over the head with whether my interest in Deleuze’s The Fold is really anything other than elitist navel-gazing.

Having said all that, one very important problem remains, for even those left intellectuals who would happily make such foundationalist appeals - who would happily sell the snake oil and do the demagoguery - show up nowhere on television and only occasionally in the major print media. What does it mean, after all, when Doris Kearns Goodwin and Clarence Page are trotted out as representatives of “the left” on the Lehrer News Hour, or when Irwin Knoll (god rest his soul) appears on that same show as, next to the de facto norm, quaintly lunatic fringe? And all of this on a program the right likes to point to as the quintessence of all that’s wrong with the “liberal media.” I agree with Bérubé that left intellectuals need to get better at these things, but the problem is that even if they do get better, the mass media codes which dictate what counts as “reasonable” or “responsible” commentary are such that, as Said warns, the intellectual who attempts to engage them on behalf of a more progressive truth may find herself the tool of the very system he means to oppose, the token testament to the system’s open-mindedness and democratic accessibility.

We don’t need to concoct lurid conspiracies between the corporate bosses who own the major media and their journalistic lackeys to explain the situation, but it isn’t convincing to explain this state of affairs solely by reference to the codes of functional differentiation either. It’s not as if Ted Turner reads Linden Soles’ copy before each telecast, but neither is it simply the code of journalistic integrity and fair reporting that made CBS decide to stop going after the tobacco industry. In both instances, the undertheorized term is power. In the first scenario, it is too centralized and is forced to do too much work; in the second, it is too decentralized and is doing no work at all.

What this means is that there is, as Bérubé well realizes, a more systematic relationship between the economic, cultural, and media systems than Luhmann’s theory of functional differentiation can account for. As I’ve argued elsewhere, it is a kind of liberal technocratic utopianism to imagine that we live in a society composed of horizontally adjacent function systems, each realizing its own complexity, with no single system exerting asymmetrical or hierarchically organizing pressure on all the others. Instead, it appears to be the case that we find ourselves in a kind of hybrid society, an uneven mixture (to use Raymond Williams’ terms) of “residual” hierarchical, center-periphery organization (according to class, capital, and the priority of the economic system) typical of traditional societies, and “emergent” fully functionally-differentiated social organization typically associated with what we call “postmodernism.” I am thus inclined to agree with Andrew Arato’s contention that Luhmann’s theory of functional differentiation turns out to be “wrong in a crucial sense”:

Despite his correct appraisal of the growth of differentiated and specialized publics, and of a whole range of arguments advanced by the young Habermas concerning the transformation of the non-specialized public under the impact of democratization, corporatism, the culture industry, public relations and propaganda, the non-specialized public has hardly disappeared… [T]here is in all democratic countries an important sphere in which politicians, intellectuals and others continue to discuss and debate politics on a high level and not without political effect.

This amounts to splitting the difference between Luhmann’s view and what I take to be Bérubé’s, at which point, as I’ve already indicated, one would want to argue about just how “high” that level is and dwell for a moment upon the tellingly-hedged “not without political effect” pointed to by Arato.

In the end, then, some of my differences with Bérubé are, as they say, “merely theoretical,” and some are not. But one theoretical difference that is not “merely” anything is the set of reservations I want to lodge about Bérubé’s appeal to “nationalism.” I am as frustrated as Bérubé is by the endless partitioning and factionalizing of the cultural left, and I too think that near the top of the agenda is to explore ways to unify the left that most of us can live with. In this light, it is not at all clear - given the associations of “nationalism” in the current moment and the cultural work it has done and is doing in the Balkans, Russia, and many another locale - that one can take on all of the political and historical freight of that term and turn it into an asset, even if it has obvious rhetorical benefits. (Indeed, one would think Bérubé would be deeply skeptical of such an endeavor, given his historically embedded reading of Grossberg). Second, espousing “nationalism” or even “patriotism” - even if one rejects Richard Rorty’s recent and sillier invocations of these notions as a stick to beat the left with - is deeply problematic for one as attuned as Bérubé appears to be to the relations between multinational capitalism, the wellbeing of the public sphere, and mass media. To invoke nationalism as a way to defend access to housing and health care gives us no way to defend ourselves against the charge that we are rhetorically ballasting a process whereby America takes care of its own at the expense of those outside the borders. That, after all, is how multinational capitalism works.

Thus, I think Bérubé is right to admit that “in focusing on national identity I may be simply proposing nationalism as a refuge from capitalism.” And in this connection, the left’s largely chilly reception of Michael Lind’s The Next American Nation, despite its emphasis on the primacy of class, should stand as fair warning. In all of these cases, as with the case of Rorty, it is a lot easier to talk about “democracy” than it is to talk about “capitalism,” because to talk about capitalism is to talk about how the freedoms and values that liberal democracy says it wants in civil society are systematically undermined by the economic system that liberalism de facto perpetuates. So it is not that in courting the rhetoric of nationalism, all we have to lose is our “theoretical purity,” as Bérubé puts it. Here and elsewhere, Bérubé needs to be reminded that the danger of “purity” is not only one of too much theory; it is also one of too little.


Works consulted

See Cary Wolfe and William Rasch, “Introduction: The Politics of Systems and Environments,” Cultural Critique 30 (Spring 1995): 5-13.

Dietrich Schwanitz, “Systems Theory According to Niklas Luhmann - Its Environment and Conceptual Strategies,” Cultural Critique 30 (Spring 1995): 145.

Eva Knodt, “Toward a Non-Foundationalist Epistemology: The Habermas/Luhmann Controversy Revisited,” New German Critique 61 (Winter 1994): 98.

Harro Muller, “Luhmann’s Systems Theory as a Theory of Modernity,” New German Critique 61 (Winter 1994): 45.

Cary Wolfe: “Making Contingency Safe for Liberalism: The Pragmatics of Epistemology in Rorty and Luhmann,” New German Critique 61 (Winter 1994): 101-127.

Andrew Arato, “Civil Society and Political Theory,” New German Critique 61 (Winter 1994): 139.